Getting Away from Pyramid Selling

Mgmt pyramidSo I wrote my recent ‘Farmers and Facilitation’ post on who should be promoted and why…but that wasn’t the end of it. Here’s ‘Part 2’:

Rethinking the ‘Promotion’ idea

Not everyone can ‘get to the top’. In fact hardly anyone can! Yet many (most?) of us spend our working lives striving to reach the next rung of the ladder…and then find ourselves eyeing the next one. It’s a bit like a pyramid selling scam!

As ever, Alfie Kohn has some interesting things to say:

“In thinking about promotion, we take for granted that an organisation must be shaped like a pyramid, with many people clamouring for a very few desirable and lucrative jobs at the top, as if this arrangement had been decreed by God. In fact, both how many such positions are available and how many people want them are the result of institutional decisions.

We create a climate in which employees are made to feel like failures if they are not upwardly mobile, and we arrange the majority of jobs so that those who hold them are given very little money and responsibility. Were these things to change, the competitive scramble for promotions might be eased and we would be obliged to rethink the whole issue of who does what in an organisation.”

Kohn is challenging us to think differently…so let’s have a go at this by winding back to what’s happening in our brains:

‘Threat and Reward’ response

One of the core areas of research on the brain has understandably been about threat vs. reward. The Neuroscientist Evian Gordon refers to this “minimise danger, maximise reward response” as “the fundamental organising principle of the brain.”

The ‘Neuro-Leadership’ scientist David Rock explains that the threat response “is mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person…[the threat response] impairs analytical thinking, creative insight and problem solving.” …and so it would be a very good idea to understand and avoid triggering our threat response1..

Rock explains a set of five social qualities that enable employees and executives alike to minimise the threat response and instead enable the [intrinsic] reward response.

These five qualities are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. I expect you will understand, and concur with these basic human desires.

Status

For the purposes of this post, I’m looking at the status social quality:

“As humans, we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in…we are biologically programmed to care about status because it favours our survival.”

David Rock goes on to observe that “organisations often assume that the only way to raise an employee’s status is to award a promotion.”

Here’s the punch line: it isn’t that we want promotion as such – we want what we think promotion implies – we want a feeling of status.

Personally, I couldn’t care less what title you give me* or how many people ‘report to me’ or how long I’ve been in my current position…but I understand and accept that (as a human being) I care about status just like the next person.

(* as long as it is logical and isn’t derogatory!)

So, if the number of management positions is (and always will be) limited AND it isn’t actually about promotion…then what can we do/ how can we act to look after everyone’s feeling of status?

I don’t (and shouldn’t) have a perfect answer for this…but some starters for ten are that our perceptions of status increase when:

  • We have meaningful work to perform (because it aligns to a purpose that we care about2.);
  • The organisation demonstrably values the role we play (which implies that the work we are doing is fully understood and that we feel valued, included and listened to by those put in place to manage us);
  • We constantly master new skills3. (where we have a degree of freedom as to what these might be, and where they take us)
  • …and these new skills are then used in yet more meaningful work….and back round the virtuous circle.

If I am doing meaningful work (to me and the organisation), I am constantly growing as a person and I am being suitably valued then I’ll be fully engaged and pretty damn happy with things.

This now links nicely back to ‘part 1’ : If I am able to self-develop then perhaps I have achieved the first step of eligibility for promotion.

Some final comments from David Rock to close:

Value has a strong impact on status. An organisation that appears to value money and rank more than a basic sense of respect for all employees will stimulate threat responses among employees who aren’t at the top of the heap.

Similarly, organisations that try to pit people against one another on the theory that it will make them work harder reinforce the idea that there are only winners and losers, which undermines the standing of people below the top 10 percent.”

In short: The practises of judging people and making them compete with each other aren’t going to help!

To conclude:

If ‘status’ in an organisation is all about your position within a hierarchy then this creates a limited and circular line of thinking, within management and employees, whereby promotion is the aim (rather than a responsibility).

Rather than spending our time talking to everyone about transparent promotion paths and career development “so you too can get to the top”, let’s spend it ensuring that everyone has a feeling of status.

A healthy feeling of status should be attainable by everybody in every position. Whether this is the case will depend upon the management system in place, and the resultant environment that it produces.

“Um, okay Steve…but I still want promotion to look good’

A personal thought: For those of you comparing yourself to those around you (at work, family, friends, and connections), here are a few lines from one of my favourite song lyrics:

“Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind
The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself”

(Baz Luhrmann – Sunscreen)

Notes:

  1. It is worth noting that ‘Performance reviews’ provoke the threat response because the person ‘passing judgement over us’ puts us on the defensive and appears, to us, to be claiming superiority over us. We find ourselves fighting for survival.
  2. I suspect that a really good ‘test’ of the meaningfulness of work to you is how you feel when someone outside of your working life (say your partner, children, family or friends) asks you what you do. Is it painful or easy to respond?!
  3. David Rock notes that “paying employees for the skills they have acquired, rather than for their seniority, is a status booster in itself. This is a very different logic to ‘incentive pay’.
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